The Last Station


The Last Station

James McAvoy displays obvious beard envy.

(2008) Period Drama (Sony Classics) Christopher Plummer, Helen Mirren, James McAvoy, Paul Giamatti, Anne-Marie Duff, Kerry Condon, John Sessions, Patrick Kennedy, Tomas Spencer, Christian Gaul, Wolfgang Hantsch, David Masterson. Directed by Michael Hoffman

Although he has a reputation for writing voluminous novels full of Russian names and places that are enough to cause the heads of most casual readers to spin, Count Leo Tolstoy was in reality one of the world’s greatest writers. His ideas continue to influence world culture to this day, and in his day he was considered to be a living saint – an idea he apparently didn’t dissuade.

Tolstoy (Plummer) is an old man living on his estate at Yasnaya Polyana, and although he has espoused pacifism and celibacy his whole life (the latter of which he obviously failed to adhere to with 13 children), his life is turmoil and warfare. His wife, the Countess Sofya (Mirren) fully expects the copyrights of his work (and the accompanying residual payments) to go to his family.

However, Tolstoy’s trusted aide Vladimir Chertkov (Giamatti) has other ideas. He believes that the rights should revert to the Russian people, which would be in line with Tolstoy’s political and social agenda – which to be honest Chertkov is entirely correct. This of course puts him at odds with the Countess who is a formidable woman and opponent in every respect.

Chertkov hires a young man, Valentin Bulgakov (McAvoy), to ostensibly act as Tolstoy’s personal secretary, but is in fact there to spy on Sofya which makes Bulgakov, a Tolstoyan to the core, a little bit uncomfortable. He winds up caught in the middle of the power struggle which the elderly writer seems to be blissfully unaware of.

Bulgakov takes solace in the arms of Masha (Condon), a woman who works on the drab but pastoral Tolstoyan commune neighboring the Count’s estate. Tolstoy’s days are growing numbered and his legacy is at stake. Bulgakov finds himself sympathizing with both sides – but which one ultimately should the Count’s decision fall to?

This is a fictionalized version of the last year of Tolstoy’s life. Based on a novel by Jay Parini, a number of the events portrayed here did take place as written, but quite  a bit of artistic license takes place as well. We see Tolstoy not as he actually was, but as we wish he was.

That’s largely due to the tremendous performances by Plummer and Mirren. Mirren gives us a multi-layered performance that portrays Sofya as alternately loving, shrewish, arch, witty, charming, devious and obstinate. To my mind, this is not only the equal of Mirren’s Oscar-winning performance in The Queen but in many ways it’s superior. She was rightly nominated for another statuette for it, although she would lose to Sandra Bullock as Best Actress.

Plummer was also nominated for his performance as Tolstoy (losing to Christoph Waltz for Best Supporting Actor), an honor richly deserved. Plummer seems to be having a great deal of fun with his role. Rather than playing Tolstoy as a ponderous, weighty pontificator who bore the burden of his greatness in his shoulders (which is the temptation), he instead humanizes the man who would go on to influence Gandhi and the peace movement of the 1960s, making him warm and grandfatherly. He dithers over the disposition of his material things, somewhat embarrassed over his own wealth and station.

McAvoy is a fine actor who has yet to really move beyond being a merely competent leading man and becoming a star; he certainly has role models to look to here if he is to move forward. He does a solid job once again, making Bulgakov likable but not memorable. Giamatti is more crotchety and is the center of the story’s conflict, a role he inhabits well. He knows how to make a character unlikable without making him grating, a very fine line that he pulls off here.

The Russia Tolstoy inhabits is changing, moving inexorably from the repressive Tsarist regime to the eventual revolution that would turn it into a communist nation that Tolstoy would have welcomed had he lived long enough to see it – and then rejected as it would become even more repressive than the government it replaced. Even in the idyllic setting of Tolstoy’s beloved home, the sense of oncoming change is ever-present in the film.

There are a lot of grand gestures and thoughts here, few of which are truly realized. We are teased with weighty insights but this film belongs more to the conflict between Sofya and Chertkov. That is the center of the action and perhaps from the standpoint of traditional storytelling that would be the way to go. However, I found the movie worked better when the relationship between Sofya and Tolstoy was at the fore; Bulgakov is more of an observer than a catalyst here, and that makes the character somewhat bland.

To my mind, this is a movie that aims high and doesn’t quite hit the mark completely, something not to be discouraged. The performances of Plummer and Mirren are both well worth seeing, and if the rest of the movie doesn’t quite live up to their efforts, at least the filmmakers had the sense to showcase the performances of these able actors and that alone should be motivation enough to rent this.

WHY RENT THIS: An opportunity to witness two glorious performances that are as different as night and day. A look into the life of a great man who was fully aware he was great.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: While there are actual historical figures here, you get the sense they are here to perform certain roles that may or may not jive with their place in history. The script hints at grand thoughts but never really realizes them.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a scene of sexuality that contains some nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The descendants of the family still live near Yasnaya Polyana and the movie was made with their support and approval. One of the count’s descendants, Anastasia Tolstoy, an Oxford graduate, shows up near the end of the film as a mourner.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is a gag reel, as well as a segment from the AFI tribute to Christopher Plummer in which he takes questions from the audience regarding his brilliant career.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $13.6M on an $18M production budget; the movie lost money on its theatrical run.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: The Bone Collector

Advertisements

The Messenger


The Messenger

Woody Harrelson and Ben Foster prepare to deliver devastating news.

(Oscilloscope Laboratories) Ben Foster, Woody Harrelson, Samantha Morton, Jena Malone, Eamonn Walker, Steve Buscemi, Yaya DaCosta. Directed by Oren Moverman

It is a fact of war that soldiers die, and it is a part of the Army’s responsibility to notify the next of kin that their loved one has died. That is perhaps the most difficult assignment any soldier could ever receive. You have to wonder what it does to the people delivering the bad news to family after family.

SSgt. Will Montgomery (Foster) is just back from a tour in Iraq, having been injured in battle. He has three months left on his tour and the Army, rather than sending him back overseas, decides to assign him to the Casualty Notification Service. These are the men who show up at the door in dress uniforms to inform the next of kin that their loved one is dead.

Will is assigned to Capt. Tony Stone (Harrelson), a veteran of the service who has written the book on how to do the job properly; use the prepared verbiage, never hug or touch the NOK (next of kin – the Army is inordinately fond of acronyms) and never, EVER get involved with them. The touch feely stuff is handled by professionals. Their job is to deliver the news nobody wants to hear. Period.

Each assignment is different. Some react with anger and resentment; others with wailing and sobbing. Some, like Olivia (Morton), a new widow hanging out the washing in her front yard, handle it with a strange kind of calm and politeness.

That particular reaction is like catnip to Will, who can’t really figure it out. He finds himself drawn to her, running into her at the mall (accidentally on purpose), fixing her car, helping her get ready to move and so on. That puts some strain on the relationship between Will and Tony, which has deepened into a strange kind of friendship. Both men have deep-seated issues; Tony with alcoholism, Will with the men he left behind. As Will encounters more and more grief, it soon becomes clear that he will need to deal with his own.

This is the first feature for Moverman, who is himself a veteran of the Israeli army. The movie isn’t a technical achievement by any means; he wisely keeps it simple and allows the powerful story and strong performances to captivate the viewer.

The performances are strong indeed. Harrelson was quite justifiably nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar and this is one of the best performances of his career. His Tony Stone is a ramrod-straight by-the-book military officer who, if you rub some of the spit and polish off, is terribly wounded and weak in his own way. His last scene is pivotal and one of the highlights of the film.

Morton is not an actress I’m enamored of, but she does solid work here. While I found the relationship between Olivia and Will unlikely, it wasn’t because of Morton. Rather, I thought the situation didn’t ring true; while the grieving process can cause people to act in ways they wouldn’t ordinarily (and certainly in ways that defy logic), it didn’t seem to me that Olivia would lose her heart so quickly. It seemed at odds with the character, although again I acknowledge that grief makes people do funny things.

The movie rests on Foster’s shoulders; it is his performance that will carry or ruin the film. Fortunately, it is the former. Foster has mostly played twitchy villains in his career, but here he plays a twitchy lead. It’s a nuanced performance that really allows us to look at how war can wound in ways that aren’t always visible.

This isn’t an easy movie to watch. It deals with some of the most raw, terrible emotions that humans are capable of feeling. Particularly moving is Buscemi’s performance as a grieving dad, who screams at the soldiers’ departing backs “Why aren’t YOU over there? Why aren’t YOU dead?” It’s compelling stuff, but watching movies this emotionally charged can be very hard on the psyche – which in my opinion is a good thing.

I like that we get to see a part of the armed forces that is overlooked; when our brave warriors make the ultimate sacrifice, it is up to these professionals to deliver the worst news possible to those left behind. It takes the kind of bravery that is equal to that of facing enemy fire on the battlefield.

WHY RENT THIS: The performances of Foster and the Oscar-nominated Harrelson make this memorable. The subject looks into a little-seen aspect of the Army.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A little too much pathos and the relationship between Will and Olivia seemed a trifle forced to me.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some sexuality and a smattering of foul language, but it is the subject matter that makes this a bit too difficult for the younger set.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Sgt. Brian Scott, who served as a technical consultant on the film, was subsequently deployed to Iraq where he was injured by an IED in Baghdad.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: Strangely, the DVD contains an interesting documentary on the Casualty Notification and Casualty Assistance offices of the Army that is not present on the Blu-Ray.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage

The White Ribbon (Das Weisse Band)


The White Ribbon (Das Weisse Band)

You could say this is a real barnburner.

(Sony Classics) Christian Friedel, Leonie Benesch, Ulrich Tukur, Burghart Klaussner, Ursina Lardi, Maria-Victoria Dragus, Leonard Proxauf, Susanne Lothar, Rainier Bock, Branko Samarovski, Ernst Jacobi (voice), Eddie Grahl, Fion Mutert. Directed by Michael Haneke

What is evil? Is evil something demonic, deep in the bowels of the Earth, dead set on world domination? Or is it something less flamboyant, something to be found in small, petty cruelties that escalate over time?

Our film is narrated by a schoolteacher (Jacobi) who was present for these events which took place many years earlier. He is an old man now and he intends to be as objective as he can be; he only narrates what he knows to be true and what he has heard from reliable sources.

The world was a simpler place then. The schoolteacher (Friedel) teaches, the pastor (Klaussner) tends to his flock, the midwife (Lothar) delivers babies and over all, the Baron (Tukur) presides. He provides employment for half the village and the other half depends on his largesse to survive. It is a patriarchal, rigid society, not unlike many others throughout the world the year before the Great War but the villagers exist comforted that they know their place in the order of things.

The students at the school are led by the pastor’s children, Klara (Dragus) and Martin (Proxauf) who are outwardly courteous and well-mannered. Those manners have come at a great cost, as they suffer terrifying disciplines at the hands of their father.

It all begins with an accident. The village doctor (Bock), out for a horseback ride, is injured when his horse trips. It could have happened to anyone…but in fact the “accident” was caused by a trip wire strategically placed. The doctor is taken to the hospital to recuperate and his children are cared for by the midwife, who has children with mental retardation of her own, including a sweet-natured son named Karli (Grahl).

That accident is soon overshadowed by another when the wife of a tenant farmer (Samarovski) falls through rotting floors in the sawmill duty she had been assigned and plunges to her death. Her son blames the Baron for this and is enraged that his father won’t seek justice against him. He takes matters into his own hands and during a harvest festival, destroys the Baron’s prized cabbage crop, horrifying the Baroness (Lardi). The schoolteacher, in the meanwhile, has taken a liking to the Baroness’ nanny Eva (Benesch).

After the harvest festival, things go from bad to worse. The Baron’s young son Sigi (Mutert) is kidnapped and tortured. He is unable or unwilling to say who did those horrifying things to him. The Baroness takes the children to Italy, giving Eva the sack in light of the events even though Sigi was not her charge. Tearful, she shows up at the school, having nowhere to go and nowhere to sleep. The schoolteacher stays up the night with her, playing songs on the harmonium for her before taking her back to her family in another village close to the one he himself was born in.

Events begin to escalate. A barn burns. The police begin to put pressure on the villagers to find out who’s responsible for these events, and still no culprit is found. When Karli is found horribly mutilated and blinded, the village turns into a powder keg waiting to blow, and the clouds of war loom ominously on the horizon.

Haneke is one of the most brilliant European directors you’ve never heard of. Although his last film was the forgettable Hollywood remake of his own Funny Games, his previous film to that, Cache (Hidden) was a tour de force. As in that film, the identity of the evildoer is less important than the evil that is done. This is a recurring theme in Haneke’s films.

The depiction of rural German village life is fascinating and feels authentic. At the beginning of the movie, everything is ordered and everyone has their role. There is a certainty in knowing who you are supposed to be and what you are supposed to do. As the events begin to unfold, that order begins to crumble and things fall apart; that certainty becomes as much a victim of the events as any who are directly injured by them.

That the movie was nominated as Best Foreign Language Film for this years Oscars is not surprising to me, nor that it is considered by many as of this writing to be the front-runner to win it. A great deal of thought went into the making of this movie, from the actors involved to the cinematography to how the script is translated onscreen. You can sense the care in every frame and everything seems to be note-perfect. The use of black and white not only intensifies the mood of vague dread and unsettling fear, but also helps set the time and place much better than color would. The broad vistas of the German heartland are also beautifully shot; because the film was shot digitally they were able to edit out all traces of modern life and create a milieu that is completely authentic.

The acting is also worth noting. For a film in which children play a critical role, the filmmakers needed to cast some very talented juvenile actors and so they did. There is naturalness to their performances, and not a hint of artifice. You don’t get a sense that they’re acting so much as becoming their characters. They act exactly as you would expect children of that era to act.

The adult actors do very well also and Friedel possesses the charm of a German Hugh Grant, modest and self-deprecating but with a hint of bumbling, yet still charming nonetheless. He is, in many ways, the least compelling of all the characters in the movie but it is Friedel’s performance that I remember the most vividly. That should tell you something.

You will notice that few of the characters have names. Most of them are identified by their role within the village, including the schoolteacher but also the pastor, the farmer and the steward. I believe that’s meant to convey that these characters are interchangeable for those in any village. I found it telling that only the children have names in this movie; read into that what you will.

The pacing of the movie is glacial and plodding at times; at two and a half hours the run time may be a bit long for some, particularly those who aren’t fond of subtitles or black and white films. Those who are patient will be rewarded with some stunning imagery and one of the most thought-provoking movies you will see this year. Violence begets violence, brutality begets brutality and evil begets more evil. As you watch this small village unravel keep in mind the old adage that your sins will find you out, and never in the way you expect them to. The White Ribbon isn’t just about the loss of innocence; it’s about its inevitable end.

REASONS TO GO: A compelling examination of brutality and evil. An authentic look at village life in Germany at the dawn of the 20th century. Naturalistic performances highlight a generally well-acted movie.

REASONS TO STAY: The movie is a bit on the long side and plods at times. The tone may be overly dark for some.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some disturbing imagery of violence and sexuality, definitely not suitable for youngsters.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was initially filmed in color, and then changed to black and white in post-production.

HOME OR THEATER: The intimate atmosphere and black and white imagery work perfectly well on the small screen.

FINAL RATING: 9/10

TOMORROW: Elegy